Federalism: Back To The Future?

Perhaps the only thing everyone can agree on these days is that our nation is irrevocably divided on issues large and small. From Supreme Court nominations and social policy to economic and environmental stewardship, there is little consensus to be found.

The lack of agreement on important issues leads to a sense of despair in many. If we cannot even get along with each other, how will we ever come together in order to take on challenges from around the globe? What can we do to get a durable majority of our 325 million citizens moving in the same direction?

I’ll answer that last question with another question: do we need to get a durable majority of 325 million citizens moving in the same direction? Without claiming to know whether it’s the right or wrong solution, let me propose a return to robust federalism as a possible solution to the cesspool of infighting we find ourselves wallowing in as the calendar approaches 2019.


For the purposes of this exercise, I’m using the term federalism to mean a system in which policy is created and enforced at the lowest level of government at which it can be effectively handled. For example, being arrested for DUI by a local police officer rather than an FBI agent.

Why Federalism?

It is my theory that many are frustrated by their interactions with a government they feel little connection with or have the power to influence. This has been exacerbated as the federal government expands its scope with each passing decade. Features of our Constitution such as the Electoral College (elections in 2000 and 2016 resulted in the popular vote winner not being elected president) and United States Senate leave even more people frustrated as decisions are made by elected officials who represent less than a majority (or even plurality) of voters.

For example, in the vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, "the 50 senators voting "yes" represented states covering just 44% of the U.S. population or 143 million Americans. That's less than a majority, less than the 181 million Americans represented by the senators voting no." (Source)

As the legislative branch repeatedly deadlocks, we have seen an increase in government by executive order. While they provide fun photo ops, they do not stand the test of time. An incoming president can quickly reverse the executive orders of a previous occupant of the Oval Office, which is a tenuous place to be for those affected by them (ask your nearest “Dreamer” about DACA).

Returning more governing power to state and local governments would allow decisions to be made by representatives who are more closely tied to their constituents rather than placing so much power in national governing bodies who are more likely to lose touch with the voters who provide their mandate to govern.

In the words of one of my favorite shows and one of my favorite musical artists, maybe it’s time for us all to take a break from each other and live and let die. If Florida wants to live with toxic algae blooms, red tide poisoning, and shrinking shorelines, so be it. If California wants to use the law to toss shade at people drinking through plastic straws, fine. If Minnesota wants universal healthcare, fine. You get the picture.